Ben Bradley had an inkling that his first week back at work wasn’t going to be an ordinary one when he received a text at 7am on Monday. The MP for Mansfield was summoned to 10 Downing Street for 11.30am with no explanation as to why. Given that this was the day Theresa May was expected to reshuffle her Cabinet, it was an odd request for an MP who had been in Parliament for less than a year, after taking the seat from Labour in the snap election. ‘I thought if it’s health, I’m not sure if I want it,’ Bradley jokes. He did, however, begin to put two and two together; ‘I’d been working a lot with the party in terms of some of this [membership] stuff anyway because it’s my cup of tea and there was something on Twitter actually which said ‘expect a raft of vice-chairs to come out early doors’ so I kind of got a clue from there.’
Bradley’s appointment as the first ever vice chair of youth for the Conservatives might not be of the same status as Health Secretary but it could certainly be described as a hospital pass. Getting the party to appeal to younger voters is a daunting task. Support for the Conservatives is just 27 per cent among those aged 18-34, and 33 per cent among those aged 35-44, according to Ipsos Mori. This is the lowest approval levels on record. As for values, an Opinium poll finding that among 18-24-year-olds just 15pc of voters now say that the Tory party represents ‘people like me’. Widen that age bracket and among 18-44-year-olds, 76pc think the Tories are more on the side of ‘richer people’ than those less well off.
Still, when we meet to discuss his new role, the 28-year-old is feeling cautiously optimistic. ‘It’s nice to do something that I genuinely am interested in and care about in a job where it seems – and the discussion is – that we’re going to have some resources to do things,’ he explains. ‘I think it’s good that (a) the government recognise the situation and actually I’ve been able to go out and say the past few days ‘yeah we have been quite rubbish at lots of stuff’ and that’s been alright which is good. And I’ve had a lot of feedback from younger activists that has been basically “it’s so good to actually hear this from CCHQ” so it’s a good start’. Those hoping for a drastic shake-up, however, may be left disappointed; ‘I keep saying that if there’s such a thing as revolutionary atmosphere in the Conservative party this is what it probably looks like – not all that volatile. But I do think it’s a genuine starting point of something positive.’
On paper, Bradley appears a smart choice to lead the Tory fightback among the young. Bradley was educated at Derby Grammar School. He wasn’t William Hague precocious, though, and didn’t get interested in politics until he’d left education and entered the world of work. ‘I didn’t really have any interest in politics whatsoever until I was probably 19 when I had dropped out of university’. Stuck in a job that he found unfulfilling and living in a bedsit, Bradley knew it was time to make a change. ‘I was a landscape gardener in my little bedsit and I just thought how do I get out of this?. My first thought was how do I help myself to do this? And at the time David Cameron was saying “this is about opportunity and it’s about helping people help themselves” – giving everyone a fair shot at doing well’. This is the crux of the issue for Bradley – the reason he identifies as a Conservative: ‘It’s the difference for me between the Conservatives and Labour: should everyone be equal or should everyone have equal opportunity? That’s why I chose the right side.’
Not that Bradley’s friends necessarily agree with him. Most don’t identify with any party and fall into the swing voter category the Tories need to attract. ‘I hope that more are Tories now, now that they’ve realised Tory MPs are lovely. I think most of them are probably open to persuasion one way or the other, which is a healthy atmosphere to grow up in.’ He does, however, still get stick from time to time. ‘It’s the usual stuff. Even my friends frankly when I first joined and when I first became a councillor said: why are you a Conservative? They didn’t understand the values that the party stands for and we haven’t been good at putting this across. To me that’s the biggest thing we need to fix – telling people what we are actually about because I think we’ve probably lost that over a decade to be honest.’
So, how does he plan to get that message out there? First on the list is to bring back some form of Conservative youth organisation – after Conservative Future ended in 2016 following a bullying scandal. Like Labour’s Momentum, Bradley wants to put more power in the hands of activists. ‘It’s on my agenda, it needs to be organised but it also needs to be a two way communication. A lot of people historically and over the past few days have said (a) this needs to come back and (b) we need to feel like our views are valued and we can feed into it.’ That said, Bradley says it’s important that his party doesn’t get too hung up on membership numbers – as nowadays people can get involved in many different ways: ‘Forget membership numbers to an extent as beyond that their are activists and there are supporters and people who share our stuff on social media who are interested and engaged and want to be involved and we need to have an arena for them to do that.’
Next up, he thinks that the party needs to improve its digital operation. Diplomatically, Bradley concedes that there ‘have been issues’ with the party’s social media – but insists it has improved ‘a lot’ since the snap election, with the digital team doubling in size. ‘There’s more that needs to be done, I particularly think that we need to perhaps have more of a sense of humour sometimes.’ It was the CCHQ Twitter that falsely announced Chris Grayling as party chairman on Monday – but Bradley says mistakes are inevitable; ‘I thought that was an odd announcement – but everyone can make a cock-up and we’ve all tweeted something stupid or wrong.’
On the subject of tweeting stupid things, Bradley thinks we’re going to have to start being more understanding when it comes to ‘crude’ comments on Twitter. He says he was disappointed that Toby Young – who writes a column for The Spectator – resigned from the government’s Office for Students over previous ill-judged tweets:
‘In the modern world I think we’re pretty much going to find that nearly everybody has said something in the past that may not have been sensible and if that becomes “if you have ever tweeted anything crude then you are barred from public office” then we won’t have many public servants left. I was really frustrated when Toby Young resigned because actually I thought he had the right credentials for the job and I think we need to stick by our guns a bit and not be shouted down by the Left.’
One person whose social media presence should be utilised by the Conservatives is Georgia ‘Toff’ Toffolo, according to Bradley. The I’m a Celeb! jungle queen – and Made in Chelsea star – is an out and proud Conservative who has said in the past that she would live to be more involved with the party. However, just last month brains at CCHQ were reported to have blocked plans to bring her into the fold over concerns she was ‘too posh’ to win over Labour voters. The MP for Mansfield – who won his seat from Labour in the snap election – takes a different view:
‘I think it’s important to have people who can reach different demographics – I think we need to move beyond stereotypes and some of the reluctance in the past has been is she a privileged person from a stereotypical Tory background and all the rest of it. I don’t think it matters. People have a perception of her from I’m a Celebrity and see her as a nice normal person.’
This reasoning is why Bradley jumped – or ran, to be precise – at the chance to meet Toff when she paid a visit to Parliament on Wednesday. ‘Because I may occasionally have mentioned her once or twice in the past, I got a couple of texts saying yes she’s here, so I ran to the members’ lobby – just really to say hello and tell her what my new job is and say ‘can we talk about it?’. Happily, Bradley got there in time and the pair have agreed to talk about her relationship with the party:
‘Some of my colleagues earlier said we only make it an issue because we make it an issue and actually for most people they don’t judge you on your background or what you sound like they judge you on what you say and how you come across. I think she comes across very well and it would be a real benefit to us as a whole to have that relationship with her. She’s open to the conversation which is a good start.’
But Bradley knows that one star supporter is not enough to deal with the challenge the party faces. As the government muses doing something drastic on tuition fees, does he think that tuition fees – now at £9,250 a year – are putting off young voters from turning blue?
‘My personal view is that tuition fees are the right thing to do, the alternative actually, even though it comes from Jeremy Corbyn, is asking generally poorer people who don’t go to university to pay the tuition fees of the people who do. This is the least socialist thing I have ever heard. I think it’s for us to make the case pro-actively – which we haven’t done and for us to explain the logic.’
Ultimately Bradley thinks the thing stopping the Conservatives from winning over younger voters is not down to a single policy. When I ask him what he thinks the biggest turn off to young voters is, he says it’s the Tory image problem – ‘none of us are here because we hate poor people’:
‘I’ve been accused of being a bit blasé about it and there are obviously a lot of big policy challenges but I honestly think the biggest turn off is the stereotype. If I talk to my friends, and largely they only experience politics at election time, and they see Jeremy Corbyn and then they see a generic Conservative politician whoever he is. Corbyn looks authentic and believes in what he is saying whereas we are sometimes guilty of having the standard lines and reading them and not being passionate.’
It’s a sobering reminder of the difficulties the Tories face following an election that saw them re-toxify that Bradley thinks he needs to point out that the Conservatives don’t hate the poor. However, if the first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem then the Tories are slowly but surely getting back on the right track.